Foresight Update 1

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

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Foresight Institute Launched

The ideas behind the Foresight Institute grew up alongside the ideas in Engines of Creation. The need for an organization was obvious: If we face great challenges as a civilization, shouldn't we organize in some way to meet them? In the coming months and years, the approach of nanotechnology and artificial intelligence will raise a host of issues, with technical, economic, political, and ethical dimensions. We will need networks of informed individuals and forums for discussion. We will need organizations able to influence public policy, including international policy.
How to proceed was less obvious. Organizations can take many forms, and our experience in other broad, technology-oriented organizations suggested many pitfalls. But this experience also suggested some promising approaches, as described in two essays, the "Postscript to Engines of Creation" and "What is the Foresight Institute?"

What has been done so far? We began by giving readers of Engines a way to get in touch, listing a mailing address for the planned Foresight Institute. Publication of the book led to a steady flow of inquiries.

The Foresight Institute now has legal existence, an outline of its purpose and strategy, a small, active core group, a mailing list of several hundred interested persons, and seed funding for startup expenses. Its chief asset, however, is a body of information and a set of concerns of vital interest to people. What we make of this beginning will, in large measure, depend on the effort, skills, and contributions of a community of people that has just begun to form. We invite you to join us.

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Japan and Nanotechnology

Japan is preparing to launch a major research initiative in a range of fields that overlap with artificial intelligence and nanotechnology. This effort, tentatively called the Human Frontier Science Program, is expected to span 20 years and to cost some $6 billion.

A major focus is development of the "sixth generation computer": a system achieving true intelligence through neural-style computation. Research in this field today centers on the use of conventional, semiconductor-based integrated circuits, but the Japanese effort also aims to develop molecular electronics. This will entail the design and construction of complex molecular systems, providing both the tools and the motivation for developing molecular assemblers and nanotechnology.

In connection with this and other goals, the Human Frontier Science Program will investigate a wide range of biological phenomena. The development of neural-style computers will involve extensive studies of the brain and its information-processing methods. More general forms of biological behavior and self-regulation will also be subjects for research.

Japan's Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (Riken) has initiated a related "frontier research program" in molecular electronics, bioelectronics, and quantum electronics, as well as in biological homeostasis and aging. The direction of this research resembles that of the Human Frontier Science Program, and is reported to include investigation of the creation of an "artificial brain." Its emphasis on molecular and biomolecular devices also moves it in the direction of nanotechnology.

Further, the Research Development Corporation of Japan is presently conducting a five-year "Nano-mechanism Project," aimed at studying the "physical actions and mechanical properties of material in the nanometer region," which "should also provide the basis for the development of a new field, which might be called 'nano-engineering.'"

Despite the tantalizing name of this effort, a two-page description in a recent RDCJ publication leaves its relationship to assemblers and nanotechnology unclear. Its emphasis is clearly on small-scale bulk processes. Applications discussed include semiconductor processing and fabrication of x-ray optics. Submicron artifacts have, of course, been around for a long time: thin films, fine scratches, synthetic molecules, and so forth all fit the description. Real nanotechnology will involve molecular assemblers able to build objects to complex, atomic specifications--including other assemblers. This is where the excitement lies.

A document from Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry, "Suggested Investigations in the Human Frontier Science Program" (November 1987) suggests a serious interest in studying and developing molecular machines. It calls for "prediction of tertiary protein structures. . . to predict the functional change due to the structural modification," "investigations of the functions of movement at the molecular level, molecular assembly level, and tissue level," and "development of artificial molecular assembly technique based on the mechanism of biomolecules." It notes that "techniques to control the shapes and the structures of biomaterials of the functional molecular aggregates, and the techniques to synthesize these materials by controlling one-, two- and three-dimensional molecular arrangements are highly required." While mixed in with many other goals, the understanding, design, and synthesis of molecular machines stands out as a major theme of the Human Frontier Science Program.

The Institute (a news supplement to the IEEE Spectrum) reports that a delegation from Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) visited Washington in spring 1986 to discuss the Human Frontier Science Program. The Economist had anticipated that the seven-nation summit in Tokyo in May 1986 would include discussion of plans to make this program an international research effort. The Institute reports that these formal talks did not occur, apparently because American and European leaders were preoccupied with terrorism and the accident at Chernobyl.

In late 1986 another party of Japanese officials visited Washington to propose forming an international panel of scientists to help plan the program. They propose a panel including three members from the U.S., and two from each other industrialized country.

Riken's smaller "frontier research program" gives some indication of Japan's seriousness regarding international cooperation. One third of the scientists involved are to be from outside Japan. Kevin Ulmer of the Center for Advanced Research in Biotechnology (affiliated with the U.S. National Bureau of Standards) has been invited to head the bioelectronics effort.

A February 1987 MITI document, titled "Outline of the Human Frontier Science Program: tentative plan," states that "Learning from the experiences of our predecessors as we meet new challenges, we should internationalize science and technology by promoting the international exchange of researchers and their findings, work together to train young researchers to lead the next generation, and reinforce basic research on a global level. . . .This will open Japan's research and development system to the world and promote the internationalization of Japan itself."

How will we respond? The Institute states that observers agree "that the Japanese are eager for international cooperation on the Human Frontier Science Program." But it quotes Brian Gains, a Japan-watcher at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, as saying that "The fifth generation [computer project] was intended to be an international program, but it caused a defensive reaction around the world." Decisions made with respect to the Human Frontier Science Program could shape the course of international cooperation--or competition--in nanotechnology.

For further reports on nanotechnology in Japan, see:

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Media Coverage

Interest in nanotechnology has spilled over from academia and industry into the popular media. The first newspaper coverage showed up in April of last year, when the Boston Globe carried a balanced article mentioning both benefits and problems that could result from the technology. OMNI featured nanotechnology as its cover story in November; both articles were by Fred Hapgood.

In December the Washington Post devoted a full page of balanced coverage to nanotechnology, on the front of its Outlook section. This article, by Mike Richards, was picked up by newspapers around the country, from Philadelphia to Houston to San Jose, sometimes with eye-catching artwork.

This January, Macmillan published The Tomorrow Makers, a non-technical book surveying work in robotics and artificial intelligence. The author, Grant Fjermedal, vividly describes an MIT NSG meeting and party that he attended while researching his book, and reports on applications of nanotechnology to cell repair. The book's back cover is a colorful excerpt on nanotechnology. A fun read.

The January/February Bloomsbury Review covered nanotechnology through an intelligently-written interview of Eric Drexler. This piece, by Larry Sessions, brought the concept to a literary audience. A seven-page article by Eric Drexler appeared in the spring Whole Earth Review, entitled "A Technology of Tiny Things: Nanotechnics and Civilization."

The general public in Italy is now better informed on nanotechnology than that of any other country, due to a four-page story by Claudio Gatti which appeared in the February issue of Europeo, a major Italian newsmagazine. Though we lack a translation, it seems to be an excellent introduction to the subject.

In addition to magazines and newspapers, numerous radio stations have featured coverage of nanotechnology. These have ranged from a seven-minute spot on National Public Radio's Morning Edition to a three-hour interview (scheduled as a two-hour interview) by a Christian station in Oregon.

This media coverage has stimulated interest in nanotechnology, but information written for the general public remains very limited. The only book on the topic is Engines of Creation (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1986), which is again available in hardcover after being briefly out of stock. A large-format paperback is due out by September. Reviews of Engines have appeared in the New York Times, Reason, the Life Extension Report, and MIT's Technology Review, often carrying substantial information about the book's subject.

More Books on Nanotechnology

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Events and Talks

An experimental FI retreat focusing on nanotechnology was held January 2-4 near Portland, Oregon. Participants were drawn from a wide range of fields including technical management, computer science, law, and creative writing.

An all-day nanotechnology symposium was held at MIT in January. (See page 8 for a full report.)

MIT NSG member Chris Fry presented a three-hour introduction to nanotechnology at a Brookings Institution conference on March 4, attended chiefly by government managers.

This year's Space Development Conference (Pittsburgh, March 27-29) followed the trend of the last two conferences by increasing coverage of nanotechnology. Two sessions and a lecture were devoted to the topic.

A Nanotechnology Study Group was founded at the University of California at Berkeley on April 23 after a lecture by Eric Drexler. Much of the audience stayed for the organizational meeting and still more attended a second meeting on May 7.

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Upcoming Events

Symposium: Directions and Implications of Advanced Computing, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, July 12, Seattle, WA. Contact Jonathan Jacky, 206-548-4117.

Artificial Life Workshop (150 person limit), Sept. 21-25, Los Alamos National Laboratory. Contact Marian Martinez, 505-667-1444.

MIT Nanotechnology Symposium (tentative), October (date to be decided), MIT Nanotechnology Study Group, no additional information available.

Micro Robots and Teleoperators Workshop (120 person limit), IEEE Robotics and Automation Council, Nov. 9-11, Hyannis, Cape Cod, MA. Contact W. S. Trimmer, 201-949-7907.

Workshop: Hypertext 87 (125 person limit), Nov. 13-15, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Contact John B. Smith, 919-962-5021.

Space Development Conference, May 27-30, 1988, Denver, CO, 303-692-6788.

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Nanotechnology Talks

Since completing his book Engines of Creation, FI's president K. Eric Drexler has lectured widely on nanotechnology. These lectures have ranged from technical presentations at universities to corporate seminars to talks for general audiences. A partial list follows:

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From Foresight Update 1, originally published 15 June 1987.